May 7, 2021 —
Today, we celebrate our Coast Guard spouses as part of National Military Spouses Day, and gives us the opportunity to recognize a standout spouse and Ombudsman volunteer, Jennifer Walker. She has dedicated herself to helping families navigate military life and is the 2020 Wanda Allen-Yearout Ombudsman of the Year Award recipient.
Walker is in her second year serving as the Ombudsman for Port Security Unit (PSU) 308 in Kiln, Mississippi. The PSU is a reserve unit of 120 members—and a “hodgepodge of cultures, personalities and traditions,” as Walker puts it—made up of people from all over the country, including California, New England and Mississippi.
“Mrs. Walker is the nexus between the 120 mobilized members of the PSU 308 and their loved ones at home,” explained Capt. Ruocco Gennaro, the unit’s commanding officer. “Her role as the unit’s Ombudsman was significantly impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic, an unprecedented hurricane and tropical storm season affecting unit members in five states, and a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program that transitioned to virtual outreach,” he said. “And she handled each event with enthusiasm and professionalism.”
Despite the challenges she faced throughout 2020, Walker rose above the opposition in a number of ways. She assembled a team, maintained outstanding communication with unit families and the command, and used multiple sources for outreach including a monthly newsletter, a Facebook site, and a rapid-outreach phone tree to provide families with topical information while continuously collaborating with the command.
Walker also found creative ways to add levity and play to the lives of the families she serves who were experiencing restricted movement during quarantine. For example, she created a “Quarantine Magnificent Beard and Mustache” contest, opening it up to voting from family members, resulting in 100 families participating. She even organized mini playdates and home events to foster connections between families in the “new normal” atmosphere of COVID-19. In fact, Walker participated in the first, hybrid virtual and in-person event for the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program and then used that experience to develop three, exclusively virtual, mid-deployment events to better meet the care-giving needs of the families while maximizing online attendance.
For all of these reasons, it’s no wonder PSU 308 members nominated Walker for the Ombudsman of the Year Award, which she won after having been selected from amongst the District winners. She learned of the news only through a recent surprise phone call from the Commandant, Adm. Karl Schultz.
“I am very humbled,” said Walker. “I did not know that my unit put me up for the District 8 award. They tricked me because the unit is still deployed and they asked me if I could talk to the command about homecoming and when I answered the phone, it was the Commandant,” she laughed. “It’s been amazing! It makes me feel so special.”
Walker shares the spotlight with the following District winners:
- Christina Webb from the First District.
- Tabitha Vogan from the Fifth District.
- Kathryn Nicolai from the Seventh District.
- Lisa Repa from the Ninth District.
- Abbigail McCracken from the Eleventh District.
- Alliena Hylkema from the Thirteenth District.
- Rachel Blaisdell from the Fourteenth District.
- Elycia Steenbergen from the Seventeenth District.
She acknowledges the District winners saying, “It’s phenomenal because it shows how available these other ombudsmen are to help our Coast Guard families because it’s definitely a group effort, we can’t do anything on our own.”
Since PSU 308 is a deployed reserve unit with people from all over, Walker has to support her families in slightly different ways than some other units. “It makes things a little bit different because I have to sometimes try and find local resources for families and I’m from Mississippi and if they’re from Georgia I have to find what’s local to them. CG SUPRT and a few other services makes this easier,” she said. Walker offered this sage advice to new ombudsmen as a key practice she herself follows, “You don’t have the answer to everything, you just have to be willing to find it.”
And it’s clear that time and time again, Walker has been able to provide solutions to the families that she serves believing that the sum of all of the parts is greater than the whole. “I don’t feel like I’ve done a lot of huge, grand gestures,” she said. “When a family member is missing their spouse, it’s the little things that matter when you’re stuck here by yourself and you don’t have somebody to help you,” explained Walker. “We’ve pushed messages about hurricanes, helping people with insurance, and people who were having issues with their kids—it’s those little things that add up.”
Beyond her ombudsman responsibilities, Walker is a fulltime, seventh-grade social studies teacher at Bayou View Middle School in Gulfport, Mississippi, where she has taught for the last 13 years. She is married to Petty Officer 1st Class, Bradley Walker, a maritime enforcement specialist, and they have two sons, Anderson who is eight and Trent who is four. Walker attends First Baptist Church of Gulfport and she regularly serves in their children’s ministry.